This week we looked beyond the flight deck and were given an insight into the challenges faced by our aviation colleagues in ATC. Chris Coney-Jones - Head of Operational Standards for NATS, and Blain Kelly - Safety Improvement Manager at Swanwick, shared with us the various threats and mitigation strategies they have been employing to deal with Skill Decay within ATC. Most importantly, they offered some incredibly valuable insights as to how pilots and ATC can work together to improve the safety, resilience and above all tolerance in our industry.
Who are they and why are they talking to us?
ATC are there to offer pilots a service, but we all know it is so much more than that - they are instrumental in ensuring safety and efficiency in the airspace which they monitor, and the skills they require and subsequent challenges faced because of the pandemic resonate surprisingly closely to the ones we always talk about for pilots.
So what are the major challenges ATC are facing?
- Top of the list is adjusting to traffic levels:
On a standard day in 2019, 8000 flights a day was standard, but this has dropped to around 20%. The south coast of the UK previously involved 7 sectors, each controlled by an individual controller. The entire region can now be handled by just one…
- Lower workload means lower arousal levels:
20% traffic does not equal 20% demand - in fact, this decreases exponentially with deceasing traffic, and ATC thrive on workload;
- Changing safety management:
Social distancing means standard operating procedures have had to adapt. One such procedure is the way they manage the handover of critical situational awareness information between shifts. The lack of face-to-face interactions means a higher risk of communication errors and lack of effectiveness;
- How to manage Skill Decay and subsequent overload:
Changes to workload for those working, and the process to bring furloughed staff back in is a challenge. NATS needs to be ready with qualified staff but are dealing with similar recency issues as airlines and operators are with their pilots.
So what have they been doing to mitigate the new threats and challenges faced?
Just like CRM for pilots, ATC use TRM (team resource management) and new training and ‘reframing’ of this has been required to adapt to the changing operational environment. And just like our (pilot) CRM studies of events, they have been ensuring review of incidents and events take place across a wide operational audience to ensure threats are mitigated and lessons are learned.
The ANSP training methodology is also similar to what we see as pilots. A huge focus has been placed on developing a training system which ensures recency and competency, but above all supports confidence. However, with every sector offering different challenges in terms of traffic volume, aircraft type, environmental and operational differences, this is not as simple as setting up a ‘one size fits all’ training solution.
The NMOCS scheme aims to support staff returning to work, confident in their abilities. The mission - to give them their CAKES (and let them eat it). The C is competence, and the recipe is attitude, knowledge, experience and skills. Sounds familiar? The fundamentals of competency within ATC are very similar to those in the pilot world too.
Which is why we need to listen to each other!
A major issue ATC are seeing is unstable approaches, and the reason is not as simple as “pilots messing up”. With quieter airspace, shortcuts are far more likely, but for controllers, what “looks normal” on an approach is changing, and because of this pilots cannot be relying on ATC to say “are you sure you ain’t too high?” anymore. We need to make sure we are maintaining situational awareness here too.
If you are operating in and think you are too high, too fast, or simply cannot manage the reduction in track miles then speak up - ATC are doing what they can to provide the most efficient routing for you, but they also need you to let them know when this doesn’t work.
Pilot super powers are situational awareness and good procedures, and we need to make sure we use these to support safety.
One such area is in CPDLC usage. This is a fantastic tool which greatly reduces communication errors, and pre-Covid when frequencies were at saturation point, it was making a big difference. Now, with lower traffic levels, we need to make sure we don’t let bad habits creep in. If you receive a negative response on CPDLC for a level change, don’t go asking by voice instead. This adds to workload and reduces the benefit.
Also keep a look out for flight plan confusion. When we are given a clearance by voice it is often along the “Route Alpha then Bravo” format. CPDLC often reformats this and gives a “Route Bravo via Alpha” clearance. So pay attention to what the clearance you’ve been given is.
We are all in this together - one big team committed to safety, efficiency and effectiveness. By talking, sharing information and supporting one another we will help ensure that the new normal which emerges for Aviation is one that still maintains these pillars, and which balances cost and efficiency with a degree of normality.
We all need to work together and learn from one another. So talk, share your mental model, early from one another and remember the key to this will be tolerance: Tolerance in terms of stamina and what the industry can handle. Tolerance in terms of what the new standards and norms are. Most importantly, tolerance towards one another.
Rebecca is a senior First Officer, operating the A380, and one of our pilot mentors. Visit our 'Supported' page to read more about Rebecca, and the support she and our other resilient pilot mentors can offer.